Pakistan has a fast fashion problem and the solution could be as simple as going back to our roots

The responsibility for fast fashion doesn't just fall on brands — consumers have to rethink the way they buy and use clothes too.
Updated 03 Nov, 2021

If you've been browsing the fashion side of the internet recently, you may have come across the term 'sustainable fashion'. There's a lot of discourse about the clothes we wear and how they were made but what exactly is sustainable fashion?

Well, to start with, the idea is rooted in reaction to ‘fast fashion’, which has really taken over in the past few years, often coupled with mass consumerism which markets us products and clothes that we don’t really need.

The basic aim of sustainable fashion, or ‘slow fashion’, is to ensure that there is less fabric filling up our landfills. This is achieved by reusing and upcycling previously used fabrics, utilising fabric that is considered waste at factories, and by creating clothes using higher quality fabric so that they last longer. Sustainable fashion doesn’t necessarily look at trends — it sees fashion and clothing holistically and aims to create clothes that are timeless and never go out of style.

Ethical fashion is often clubbed in with sustainable fashion, and this concept adds depth to green fashion, as it asks businesses to pay fair prices for raw materials, pay fair wages, and provide safe and clean working environments for their workers.

In the last two decades, Pakistan’s own clothing market has changed. We’ve found our own version of fast fashion — from shopping in markets for loose fabric and building an outfit around that to shopping for stitched pret lines and unstitched fabric that comes with all the bells and whistles included in the pack. Traditionally, desi clothing requires you to be involved in its process, be it everyday wear or what you’re wearing to an upcoming wedding.

Pret and ready-to-wear clothing have in the past 20 years accelerated this process and we’re now at a point where new collections are being launched nationwide every few weeks. The joke used to be that lawn season was intense, but now it’s a year long phenomenon with lawn being the end all and be all of it all.

A clothes factory in Karachi — Photo: AFP
A clothes factory in Karachi — Photo: AFP

This shift towards fast fashion, as described to Images by writer Amna Chaudhry, is an amalgamation of many forces acting together — the rise of ‘mall culture’, women entering public spaces, and consequently the added pressure on women to dress and present themselves differently at various occasions.

Sabah Bano Malik, a body positivity advocate, writer, and RJ, added another factor — cost. She says that for a lot of people, fast fashion is simply cheaper than ‘slow’ fashion.

Fast fashion for eastern wear will obviously look different than fast fashion for western clothing, but looking at our industry, we are barreling towards that fast fashion goal. Fashion is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. Your next thought might be why should a country like Pakistan care about its fashion and resultant carbon emissions — our national contribution to global carbon emissions stands at 0.5%. Well, as you might know and might have seen, Pakistan might contribute very little, but will bear most of the brunt of climate change. There are things we can do and a big part of that has to do with how we dress ourselves. We have to rewind and go back to the wisdom of the past — the past that was more naturally sustainable.

For brands, or for consumers, treating sustainability as something new may not be fruitful. Being sustainable, or rather, stretching the use out of materials is something we know very well, which is why translating a word like sustainability would be difficult to begin with. A good place to start this discussion would be to look at it from a consumer's point of view.

Syed Aamir Ali, who writes about fashion, told Images that Pakistani brands are quick to claim that their brand is sustainable. “There is virtually no way to ascertain how truly sustainable their products are,” he explained. Chaudhry, the writer, extended this line of argument and said that to truly be sustainable, the concept needs to be implemented from the ground up, not top down as it has been done with brands releasing marketing campaigns built around sustainability.

Her perspective, which is more overarching, brings a new light to the argument of whether brands can really be sustainable. According to Chaudhry, this isn’t possible given the capitalist model of business. “Are your workers being paid a living wage? Are you going to limit the number of collections you put out a year? Are you producing garments that are good quality and designed to last longer than a season while also being affordable? Now, many brands will say if they take all these questions into account they will go out of business.”

Another aspect to consider is exactly who should be the agent of change in the market. Are consumers changing their attitude and buying habits, leading to a change in production by brands? Or, as the suppliers of fashion, are brands meant to champion this move towards sustainability?

To truly be sustainable, the concept needs to be implemented from the ground up, not top down as it has been done with brands releasing marketing campaigns built around sustainability, said writer Amna Chaudhry.

Malik brings up an interesting dynamic, highlighting the fact that labels in Pakistan are more likely overproducing lower quality fabric. She contextualised it with a broader discussion around sustainability in Pakistani consumer behaviour. “In Pakistan we really get the most use out of our fabric. Few people wear an item and actually throw it out. It is passed on, donated, and sometimes things are worn out to become ‘safayi ka kapra’ [cleaning rags] too,” she explained.

Chaudhry summarised the issue in two sentences — “The sad truth is that brands have gotten us into this mess, but we also cannot fully trust them to get us out of it. What we can do is demand accountability from brands and emphasise that they cannot get away with operating the way they are because we are watching them.”

Brands, at the end of the day, are businesses. We’re led to usually glamorising the fashion industry. The world that we live in now demands that we look at the business side too. Outside of tech and haute couture, business is usually reactive. It's reactive to trends but most of all, it's reactive to where customers spend their money. So, it can be argued that the demand for fashion can bring about change, therefore, as consumers the time for complacency has to end. We have to be better.

“The masses just don’t care. Not even about labour practices, or originality of design or even the very quality of the fabric,” lamented Ali, the fashion writer. This lays bare our issue — the issue of making people listen and making people care. And this doesn’t just apply to fashion, it needs to be holistic awareness about the environment and the planet. And it needs to go beyond planting trees.

The other half of this equation are the brands. How are brands reacting, if at all? And are new fashion ventures aiming to be greener than their more established counterparts?

A brand name that most middle to high income consumers relate to when it comes to sustainability is Generation. Harris Masood, brand strategist at Generation, spoke to Images about the brand and its sustainable outlook. For Masood, sustainability means creating pieces that are evergreen, durable, and fashionable. Trends are fast paced and keeping up with them will lead to overproduction. By limiting production, Generation is able to focus on the quality of the product, its durability, its wearability over the years and how they can produce in a greener way.

“Why would you need to buy new clothes when the ones you have never go out of style and don’t wear out?” Harris asked. He shared that 95% of all their processes are locally sourced, which means that collections can take anywhere from a year to 18 months to produce.

Along with speaking to an established brand, we also reached out to two up and coming businesses that mostly operate via Instagram. Shahkaar by Adila and Bazazi are two slow fashion businesses where sustainability is the main ethos behind production and design decisions.

According to a representative from Shahkaar, the idea for the brand is deeply rooted in celebrating local artisans and craft, therefore it felt hypocritical to be exploiting workers and being “fake woke”. For them, the choice to be sustainable was natural. “Because of our choice to be sustainable, we knew we couldn’t compete on price while also paying fair wages and sourcing good quality fabrics. We were fine with that, as long as our customers knew that when they buy from us, they buy a product made with love and dedication and that it will not be discarded once the season ends.”

Mohib Tanoli at Bazazi shared similar sentiment. He said when they create their collections, they do not source materials specifically for designs. They source clean fabric waste that is often left at factories at the time of production. A prime example of this was Bazazi’s ‘No Waste’ shirt that was made entirely from recycled fabric, fresh cotton waste and recycled buttons and thread.

All three businesses were asked who they think carries the responsibility of changing and adapting towards sustainability. Resoundingly, all three agreed that the change needs to occur on both ends — the business and the consumer.

Generation's Masood said, “this is a chicken and egg problem. Living in a capitalist society and market, it is pointless to dig for the root cause. What is important is how we change and react from here on out.”

Tanoli included a new responsibility for consumers — appreciation and understanding. As a small business owner, he is understandably frustrated with how consumers complain about prices. According to him, rather than focusing on price points and “discounts”, the discussion and focus needs to be on environmental risks and damages. And finally, the team at Shahkaar called out big brands for producing "cutesy behind the scene" videos and campaigns that are basically a smokescreen to distract people from their unsustainable practices.

As consumers, we need to be mindful about what we buy, where we buy it from and how long we intend on using it. Buying that trendy outfit is tempting, but if the price is too good to be true, rest assured that the fabric and quality will be anything but good.

We need to shift the way we look at clothes. Fashion isn’t as simple as we’re led to believe — the ramifications of a simple t-shirt are mind boggling, so you can only imagine what the environmental impact of other clothes is going to look like. Consumers need to put in the work when they’re shopping and thinking about clothes and how they use them.

As buyers we must hold brands accountable, and support those who are making a positive change in the fashion industry.

But it is also clear that brands have to change too. The current capitalist system is choking the world, polluting our water and contaminating our air. Yes, profit is the motivation for brands to open up in the first place, however, they must find a way to offset the damaging effects of their production by adopting sustainability and creating a healthier looking fashion ecosystem around them.

What is clear is that things cannot continue like this. From the time I started writing this article to finishing it, the UN’s latest report put the world’s climate crisis in the ‘red zone’, meaning that no matter what we do, we cannot reverse the damage caused by carbon emissions. This piece focuses on fashion because our power as consumers is in our purchasing power. We interact with fashion on a daily basis, therefore we can amend the way we look at this industry and aim to do better.

We all have to look at our decisions as people and as active members of society and the economy and consider what we do in our individual capacity to lower our carbon emissions. You could choose to be sustainable in your clothing or greener with your food choices, but we all have to make a conscious decision to be more sustainable, for ourselves, for our future and for our planet.

Composite artwork by Saad Arifi